Global COVID-19 pandemic has altered the world, raising a question of the effect it has had on people who were already trying to change the world? A fast-paced discussion at NRF 2021: Retail’s Big Show – Chapter 1, moderated by Bloomberg retail reporter Jordyn Holman, took up this issue.
Joining her were Abigail Kammerzell, U.S. sustainability manager for H&M, and Jennifer Keesson, U.S. sustainability manager for IKEA.
Keesson told, one clear effect of the pandemic is that people increased spending a lot more time at home, which altered their relationship to home. For one thing, they are trying to find multifunctional uses for available resources at home.
“There is also the fact that people’s wallets are smaller,” Jennifer Keesson said.
“At IKEA, we’re moving ahead with sustainability while working to understand the important and urgent needs customers have, and how to support them through these unprecedented times,” Jennifer Keesson added.
“We regard sustainability as key to recovery from the pandemic,” Kammerzell said.
Kammerzell added, “We are working with our customers and the supply chain to enable people who want to wear our clothing to do so in a manner that’s safe for the planet and for themselves.”
Gen Z leads the way
While Jordyn Holman noted that much of the pressure for sustainability comes from consumers, especially young ones.
Holman asked the panelists what the young, and Gen Z in particular, have shown them about how their companies can lead in this area.
“Having grown up as digital natives,” Kammerzell said.
“They understand — maybe better than any preceding generation — how to access information. And they’re really demanding about it. They want to know where our clothing is made and out of what, what the social implications of that are, and what’s the responsibility of the consumer once they’re done with it,” Kammerzell added.
“On top of that, Gen Z has definite expectations about what a business is: It’s not just here to provide an item, it’s also here to improve the society and community in which it operates,” said Kammerzell.
One thing businesses do, at least successful ones, is grow. Particularly during the pandemic, home is a growth category.
Amid the pandemic, one key issue was business growth. Holman said, “Overconsumption is part of the conversation about sustainability and how is IKEA maintaining its sustainability efforts in the face of this?”
That is a question for the whole retail industry,” Keesson replied.
She said, IKEA is trying to encourage customers to be more sustainable at home, which begins with providing information and asking questions. What is this made of? Can it be multifunctional? How can we prolong its life? How do we handle the back end, i.e., disposal, in the least damaging way? How do we control the secondhand market?
As part of this effort, IKEA launched a “turn Black Friday Green” campaign during the past holiday season. “Rather than promoting a sale,” Keesson said, “we promoted things to do with furniture you already have.”
Kammerzell pointed the growing circularity movement in the readymade garment (RMG) industry, Rather than allowing discarded garments to end up in a landfill, they are passed on through the growing secondhand market or refashioned into something else.
In the United States, H&M encourages this with in-store drop-off bins, through education, and, she said, by being very honest with customers.
In the end, Holman brought up the sensitive issue of inequality. Where she asked, is equality part of the sustainability conversation?
“There can be no climate justice without racial justice,” Kammerzell said, under which she included not just discrimination on the basis of race but of gender as well: 80% of garment workers, she noted, are women, but the overwhelming majority of management and leadership positions are held by men.
H&M does not have a ready-made solution to this (or to related issues, such as the fact that in garment manufacturing, 70 percent of CO2 emissions happen during production). But the company is aware of it and willing to talk about it.
“Equality is important,” Kammerzell said, “especially in fashion. Fashion is inspired by many different cultures, but there’s a gatekeeping that happens. You cannot say you are fair and equal if you are not.”